Does Maine’s immigrant community hold untapped economic potential?

Elijah Y. Akilo (right) and James Deng (left) are co-owners of African International Groceries on Congress Street in Portland.
Alexander Greenlee
Elijah Y. Akilo (right) and James Deng (left) are co-owners of African International Groceries on Congress Street in Portland. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 25, 2013, at 1:48 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 25, 2013, at 2:26 p.m.
Claude Rwaganje, founder of Community Financial Literacy, a nonprofit he founded in Portland to teach immigrants and refugees in Maine how to navigate the American financial system.
Alexander Greenlee
Claude Rwaganje, founder of Community Financial Literacy, a nonprofit he founded in Portland to teach immigrants and refugees in Maine how to navigate the American financial system. Buy Photo
Marian Abu, a 26-year-old Somali immigrant and an owner of the Jazeera Market on Congress Street in Portland, believes immigrant entrepreneurs need more support to help them navigate the legal and financial avenues of owning and operating a business in Maine.
Kirsten Sylvain | BDN
Marian Abu, a 26-year-old Somali immigrant and an owner of the Jazeera Market on Congress Street in Portland, believes immigrant entrepreneurs need more support to help them navigate the legal and financial avenues of owning and operating a business in Maine. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — As the rest of Maine’s business community struggled through the Great Recession and its recovery, one sector of the local economy remained relatively unscathed and could, with the proper support, provide the state with a much-needed economic boost, according to experts.

Maine’s immigrant-owned businesses — situated mostly in the retail and food-service sectors — were for the most part insulated from the effects of the recession because their communities serve as a dedicated customer base, one that continued to grow throughout the recession, according to Charles Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. Maine’s foreign-born population has grown by 16.5 percent in the last 11 years, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

“They may have played a larger role in the business sector over the last few years than you would think, given the size of the stores and businesses,” Colgan said.

Though hard data isn’t available, Colgan suspects that immigrant-owned businesses in southern Maine’s retail sector are faring better than the state’s retail sector as a whole. He estimates that perhaps half of the newly established small retail businesses in Portland over the last few years may be immigrant-owned.

Immigrant-owned businesses also hold untapped potential that, given the right tools and a concerted effort, could help the state bounce back from the recent economic slump, according to Claude Rwaganje, founder of Community Financial Literacy in Portland.

“[Talking about] the impact of small businesses in Maine, that’s an area where people really don’t realize that immigrant entrepreneurs are making a difference,” said Rwaganje, who estimates there are more than 20 African-owned businesses in Portland alone. “It has gone unnoticed by many people.”

Rwaganje came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996. After graduating from USM with a master’s degree in business, he founded CFL in 2008 as a vehicle to teach the basics of finance to new immigrants and refugees to Maine. His organization’s goal is to empower immigrants in southern Maine to become more productive members of the community.

“CFL started with zero income, and now we’re over $100,000,” he said. “I was empowered, and the mission is to empower others with financial skills for a better future.”

Alain Nahimana, immigrant rights and racial justice organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, shares Rwaganje’s belief.

Maine’s aging population and the departure of a proportion of Maine’s young people means the state will need skilled young workers in the future. Immigrants, who often arrive with skills that go unnoticed, can help fill that void, he said.

“We need to start being strategic,” he said. “Which type of immigrants do we want, skilled ones, unskilled ones? … Which kind of skills do we need them to have, given the needs of the job market, the needs of the Maine economy?”

“Instead of putting them in a hotel room to clean,” Rwaganje said, “we need to acknowledge the skills they have.”

Rwaganje would like to do more to support immigrants and refugees in pursuing business opportunities, but more hard data is needed to better understand the makeup of the immigrant community and to identify the specific challenges immigrants face in their entrepreneurial endeavors.

While previous studies by the Maine Center for Economic Policy show the Latino and Asian business communities have emerged as important players in the state’s economy, providing thousands of jobs and generating millions in economic impact, little if any research has been done on the economic impact of Maine’s African immigrant community on the state, Colgan said.

To remedy that, Rwaganje has submitted a proposal to the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to study Portland’s African immigrant and refugee-owned business sector. It would be the first study of its kind.

Chris Hall, CEO of the chamber, supports Rwaganje’s plan. He said the proposal has been submitted to the city and will be included in the next iteration of the city’s economic development plan, which should be released in the coming weeks. However, he thinks the resulting study’s focus will be broader than just the impact of African-owned businesses.

“As you can imagine, the nature of that investigation is going to want to be more expansive and not less,” Hall said. “I don’t know if it will look at [businesses owned by] African immigrants or all immigrants or even bigger than that, and include women-owned businesses and those owned by those with disabilities. But certainly the city is working toward such a study to get our arms around all these pieces.”

Besides better understanding the African business community’s economic impact, Rwaganje also wants to learn more about the unique challenges facing the immigrant entrepreneurs so he can tailor the support he provides.

One well-known challenge is financial literacy, the focus of his nonprofit organization.

Many immigrant business owners don’t know how to grow their businesses because they aren’t familiar with the American financial system, Rwaganje said.

“I will say that 99 percent of people that we teach have never heard of credit,” he said. “[They don’t know] how to build credit, how to maintain credit.”

Many immigrants arrive in the United States from countries that have cash-based economies, according to Elijah Y. Akilo, a Nigerian immigrant who has owned a business in Portland for almost 20 years. Some of these immigrants have never deposited money in a bank let alone applied for a commercial loan, Akilo said.

“They need to understand the system,” said Akilo said, referring to immigrants. “You need to understand the rules and the system and try … to abide it,” he said.

Akilo said he has made plenty of mistakes over the years, which have forced him to learn business lessons the hard way.

“I’ve had a tremendous amount of experience with profit and loss, losing the business and building it back up,” he said. “I thank God for the opportunity, I really do.”

But more support upfront for budding entrepreneurs in the immigrant community could help them expand their businesses and help them make a greater impact on the larger economy, Akilo said.

And that’s the goal, Rwaganje said — increasing the immigrant community’s contributions to the larger community. He fears many see immigrants as a population that takes resources from the state, without contributing to it.

“We don’t want to be seen only as people taking away money from the state,” he said. “We want to be part of Maine’s economy by contributing whatever we can.”

BDN Business Editor Whit Richardson contributed to this report.

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